Eating well in Puerto Limon . . .

High above the harbor, where the air is clear and the streets are filled with cars and people rather than warning signs and concertina wire, our cab driver pulled to the side and indicated a colorful sign and an open doorway. We had arrived at our destination, and a smiling waiter came out to greet us. 100_4759

Crew members on board our cruise ship had said this was the place to go for lunch in Puerto Limon. We were early but it was comfortable enough to just sit and “be.” The big-screen TV that hung from the ceiling, thankfully, was not blaring, and the hum of quiet conversation from two or three adjoining tables was pleasant “background music.” We ordered cool drinks. We did not expect to be alone for long.

The ‘back side’ of Costa Rica

This is not the tourist’s Costa Rica. Puerto Limon, the busiest port in the country, has the look and the feel of a “real” town. Bananas, grains and other goods leave here bound for destinations across the globe, but it has not yet become a prime cruise ship destination. It retains its working class flavor, refreshing in a time when glitzy storefronts and undistinguished trinkets welcome disembarking passengers in most other ports.

This Caribbean port has island roots and they stretch all the way back to 1502, when Christopher Columbus set foot on the land. Beaches stretch in both directions, and the sea is beautiful, but the city itself is a bit disheveled and has suffered the ravages of earthquakes, storms and economic blight. Like much of Latin America, it is defined by gates and barricades, and the ever-present concertina wire.

Limon is not postcard pretty, but the people we met were gracious and friendly, although busy with their own pursuits and not impressed by cruise ship crowds. We had no desire to shop in town, but the fruits and vegetables displayed at the market looked lush, ripe and inviting.

My journal note from the day:

“The Red Snapper (or Da Domenico; we were never quite certain exactly where we were!) is unassuming from the street, pleasant enough within; with a friendly local ambience not unlike bars and restaurants elsewhere in the tropics. Sea breezes circulate under a soaring ceiling, wafting through open-air rooms like invited guests. Dark wood interiors punctuated with spots of bright color keep it cool, but lively. And the good-natured banter emanating from the kitchen makes us smile. So, too, does the sleeping dog that patrons are careful to step over or around!”

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Views of the harbor — our glistening white cruise ship seemed far away and far below — were mesmerizing. We looked over the rooftops toward the horizon and were captivated. We drank in the beauty of the sea, ordered cool drinks, and knew we had been given good advice.

We also knew it was going to be a long and satisfying lunch! We were not disappointed.

Sampling the sea’s treasures

Because the best part of travel involves putting aside the familiar, we asked our waiter for lunch suggestions. We specified fish or seafood. Little did we know what a feast would be set before us, so we also decided to share a pizza marguerita “appetizer.” No way could we consider it a mistake in terms of flavor, but there is no way a starter course was necessary!

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Our surprise dishes were delightful — and the three of us happily shared two distinctly different orders. The first, a whole fish served with fried plantain and a fresh green salad, was not only impressive to behold, but would have offered sufficient food for three on its own! And it was presented as beautifully as cruise ship fare.

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The second house specialty included perfectly-prepared seafood steamed in a delicious sauce and served in its own foil pack hot from the oven. 100_4748Overloaded with shrimp and mussels swimming in flavored sauce atop a bed of pasta, it was Caribbean in character, boasting plump cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and subtle exotic spice, perfectly executed, but too much for one person!

When our congenial cab driver returned to pick us up, he obliged by taking us on a short tour through his town — a request we always try to make. As we made our way back to the dock, we were happy to have shared a great meal in Puerto Limon, sorry that we had no more time to explore this back side of Costa Rica more fully.

We will savor the experience we had, and we will continue to wonder about our young waiter who dreamed someday of joining a cruise ship crew to see the rest of the world.

 

Gold earring and the Cape

David Stanley/Flickr

There are times when armchair travel is almost as rewarding as in-the-flesh excursions.

Even firsthand accounts of adventurous trips may not quite compare with the real thing, but sometimes words and pictures convey the spirit of a place in a way that is stunning and satisfying. Researching nautical lore became a stay-at-home voyage of discovery, an exciting experience that needed no packed bag and no advance planning.

A Virtual Voyage

In December, I took a month-long journey from Los Angeles, following the Pacific coastline of the Americas to the “bottom of the world” and back north once again on the Atlantic side of South America to Rio. It was a virtual voyage via modern cruise ship.

By frequently checking the vessel’s bridge cam, I was able to experience smooth seas and rolling waves, raindrops and marshmallow clouds, bright sun and midnights, the distant horizon and the nearby shore. I also got a feel for some of the ports and watched, mesmerized, as the fog cleared over the craggy mountainous backdrop of Ushuaia, the southernmost outpost in the world.

It was not the same as actually being there. But it was good; reading filled in some of the blanks. I’m planning for the future, and because of my virtual voyage and my research, I know better what to expect. Yesterday, on the solstice, I thought about Ushuaia again. It’s winter now at the bottom of the world, and I’m sure the air is frigid.

Planning Ahead

I’ll be reading more books and poring over more pictures of all the cities along the route prior to booking the trip. I’ll read more geography and history, more about past civilizations and current governments. I’ll learn more about local food and drink and culture. You can bet I’ll read more about the HMS Beagle before cruising through Beagle Channel on the way from Argentina to Peru!

I’ll also study up a bit more on nautical lore. That’s one of the reasons this particular voyage was so appealing: The itinerary included crossing the equator as well as rounding Cape Horn.

There was a time when sailing superstitions were honored, when nautical traditions held sway in everyday life, when seagoing ritual was honored on land as well as on the seven seas, in every corner of the globe.

Now, not so much.

Nautical Superstitions

But some customs are still practiced by modern navies; cruise ships indulge in time-honored ceremonies when crossing the equator or the international date line. Even “airships” mark those occasions with a nod to tradition — an announcement from the captain or, sometimes, a certificate. Today, it’s all strictly for fun. Or is it?

Old salts might tell you otherwise. More superstitious sailors wouldn’t think of eating a banana on board, never whistle while they work, dread sharks but welcome dolphins, and are careful to speak first to any redhead within earshot. There are also plenty of pleasure boaters who are wary of changing a vessel’s name and, curiously, never wish fellow travelers “good luck” before a planned journey.

We still live close to our mythology in other ways — throwing salt over a left shoulder, for instance; acknowledging a sneeze with “gesundheit,” not having a 13th floor in buildings.

But nowhere is the mythology closer than at sea.

Sailing Tradition

Just as I am still searching for a tattered nautical chart with the notation “BHBD,” I also have a sort of “bucket list” that has more to do with half-forgotten habits than with destinations:

  • I want to wear a gold earring in my left ear as testament to my voyage around Cape Horn. There are many versions of this tradition, and while I have no illusions about being able to qualify for the Amicale des Capitaines au Long Cours Cap Horniers (AICH),  I do intend to stand at the bottom of the world and look towards Antarctica.
  • I want to sail across the International Dateline, gaining (or losing) an entire day in an instant. I want a certificate to hang on my wall in commemoration of the feat.
  • For old salts, a sparrow tattoo marked a milestone of 5,000 nautical miles traveled.I have already earned the right to at least a couple of sparrows, and I still have more miles to travel. However, I’m a coward when it comes to ink on my skin. Maybe, when I qualify for a host of sparrows. . .

In 2017, I will be traveling in other directions, but I still have my eye on a spectacular gold hoop earring, and I’m already deep into research for 2018!

Photo of Harbor at Ushuaia, Terra del Fuego, Argentina, 2014, by David Stanley/Flickr